Three councillors are complaining to Scotland’s finance minister John Swinney about the conduct of the Accounts Commission and what they see as its “collective defamation of our character, competence and integrity”.
It comes after the commission staged a two-day hearing into Shetland Islands Council in July this year. The commission’s findings stated that the SIC was ridden with major problems in leadership and governance, as well as destructive tensions between members and officials.
Since then the SIC has put an improvement plan in place and, while stressing they are content with the direction the local authority is heading in, councillors Jonathan Wills, Gary Robinson and Allison Duncan believe they were wrongly criticised for the actions of other elected members.
After the three took umbrage with the commission’s response to a detailed complaint they had submitted against it, Dr Wills said he would be asking MSP Tavish Scott to look into the matter. The member for Lerwick South feels a parliamentary inquiry could be necessary.
In a letter to commission secretary Mark Brough, the three councillors suggest the spending watchdog for Scotland “considers itself judge and jury in its own cause”.
The letter states: “You ignore our criticism that the commission signally failed to adopt a forensic, evidence-based approach in this case and chose deliberately to issue collective condemnations without examining all the facts.
“In so doing, the commission failed to apply to its own deliberations the standards that it demands of those whom it investigates.”
The councillors, all members of the audit and scrutiny committee, criticise the commission for what they describe as its “blunderbuss approach” to other local authorities.
They claim it “travels around Scotland assigning collective ‘corporate’ blame to individual councillors who, as in our case, were actually the first to draw attention to the errors and irregularities belatedly recognised by Audit Scotland and the commission”.
“This amounts to collective defamation of our character, competence and integrity,” the letter continues. “It is against natural justice. We do not intend to tolerate such high-handed, capricious behaviour and we will take this matter further, notwithstanding your obstructive correspondence.”
The original complaint also criticises the commission for misunderstanding certain aspects of political life in Shetland, most notably the arrangement between the council and Shetland Charitable Trust.
In response, Mr Brough wrote: “In examining the position at Shetland Islands Council the commission was … concerned to consider the actions and responsibilities of the local authority as a corporate body.
“It is for the commission to consider how to conduct its enquiries to equip it with the evidence that it considers it requires in order to do that. The obligations to consider the commission’s findings, and any recommendations that result from them, are again on the local authority as a corporate body.”
Last month members unanimously accepted chief executive Alistair Buchan’s improvement plan, though some councillors did express sympathy with individual colleagues who felt affronted by the commission’s findings.
Commission chairman John Baillie told this newspaper in September that apportioning blame to individuals would have “taken an awful lot more evidence” and he was “more interested in getting things put right”.